Category Archives: Real Life Saints

Marley’s Ghost

The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843); Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1915)

It’ that time of year, when the world turns its mind toward trees and candelabra; driedels and tinsel; manger scenes and Maccabees. The Holidays and all the trappings from toys and latkes to church and family. It’s a busy time and the prevailing cultural mood is that if everything in your life isn’t going exactly how you’d like, then you are doomed to wander through the whole year having “lost the holiday spirit”. Woe betide those who walk past the Salvation Army Santa with his bell or fail to greet their neighbor with appropriately festive greetings. All of this in the name of “keeping the spirit” or “keeping Christ in Christmas” or…whatever.

Recently, though, we have been on the receiving end of a darker holiday message. In recent weeks, our own Jamey Bennet has had to break the law in order to follow the Gospel calling to feed the homeless in Fort Lauderdale. A good friend of LOTW had his house robbed and ransacked and what little they did have, was taken from them in the course of an afternoon. Even our own government has been exposed for its cruel and inhuman acts towards our fellow-man. Here at the rolling of the year, we are drawn to the question: Am I my brother’s keeper?

It was in this dark world that I was reading A Christmas Carol to my daughters. This has become a tradition in our house: First The Best Christmas Pageant Ever , then A Christmas Carol. We have just reached Marley’s Ghost and his admonishment of Scrooge in light of his own sufferings.

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”

Having lost the ability to interfere for good in human misery, Marley must watch it–blown about on the winds–and weep for his unfeeling past. Keeping his eyes to the ground and only on the nearest crisis of income and expenses, he lost the time granted him to reach out a tender hand with love and goodwill towards those he saw in need.

What are we to do? How are we to see the world in such desperate need, to feel ourselves at a loss for time and resources, and make a real change? What great work can we accomplish in the name of Jesus Christ for the life of the world and the saving of the race?

I was moved by the story from our friend: in the midst of his suffering he kept saying, “I am thankful”. Thankful for his family, his safety, his house, his friends, his work, everything that remained to him. It is so easy at these times to turn inwards, focus on our own needs, and to wait for someone else to work to change the life of someone else. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Where Marley kept his eyes to the ground and ignored human misery, this dear friend looked up and was guided by the star to the nearest manger and able to change the life of someone else he saw in need.

Dickens, through Marley, presents a very simple anthropology: “It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!” We are called to see each person, every hurting soul, every joyful laughter and tune our hearts to join that dance. Failure to do that is failure to be a Human. In every person, we are called to see the imago dei and turn in reverence to that image and raise it up in the name of Christ–no matter who or what they may be or how they may offend us. True iconodulism is not limited to the reverence of sacred images on wood and stone, but most truly directed at the living icons who wander in and out of our lives.

Merry Christmas!

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Caleb (Edward) Shoemaker is a teacher of Latin and Bible in Upstate New York. He has a degree in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Institute in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is kept busy raising four beautiful children with his wife Amelia. Check out their Etsy shop Embroidered Ameilia specializing in Pascha blanket patterns for the American Orthodox.

Fort Lauderdale’s Attack on the Homeless


In recent years, approximately 100 U.S cities have enacted laws targeting the homeless, and contributing to criminalizing the poor and homeless, and reducing them by law to something less than human.

Many of these cities have specifically targeted their food supply, enacting laws limiting or banning serving free food publicly. Houston, Pasadena, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Philadelphia are among the many cities that have made news for their policies that sound good in closed door meetings, but don’t go over so well with the public.

Most recently, Fort Lauderdale mayor Jack Seiler has rankled many across the country when police arrested 90-year-old WWII veteran Arnold Abbott for serving food to the homeless outdoors. “’Drop that plate right there,’” Abbott claims an officer commanded him, as if he were wielding a weapon. Abbott has been serving the poor of Fort Lauderdale for more than two decades through his ministry, Love Thy Neighbor, and has no intention of stopping now.

Even comedian Stephen Colbert picked up the story on his late night comedy news show The Colbert Report, joking, “If George Zimmerman had fed a guy in a hoodie, he’d be in jail.”

Read the full post at Orthodox Christian Network.

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Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.

St. John the Forerunner: Ancient Saint, Modern Saint

medium_988364117When we first began attending an Orthodox Church, I noticed that there was a life-size icon of St. John the Baptist (usually called St. John the Forerunner in our church) on the iconostasis right next to the icon of Jesus. In the icon, St. John’s head is firmly on his body, but he is also holding a plate with another picture of his detached head on it. The image is terribly shocking the first time you see it. How could we put such a violent image right up there at the front of the church, right next to Jesus?

Yet icons tell us the stories of the saints they depict. For example, if a saint is holding a cross, that means the saint was a martyr. Saints who are holding scrolls are considered saints of holy wisdom who contributed to our theology and beliefs. Female saints wearing white veils were virgins, while females in colorful veils were not. One of the key parts of St. John the Forerunner’s story is that he was martyred in an unconventional and brutal way: He had his head cut off at the request of Herod’s niece. So most icons of St. John have him holding a cross in one hand to signify that he is a martyr, and holding his own head on a platter or in a chalice in the other hand to remind us of the evil way he was martyred and the sacrifice he made for his cousin, and our Savior, Jesus.

Sometimes you will find an icon of St. John that shows a baby instead of his head on the platter. That baby is Jesus, and it represents the Lamb of God. The image of Jesus reminds us that St. John’s purpose was the prepare the way for Jesus. It also is a reminder that John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to meet her and tell her she was pregnant with Jesus. Even before he was born, John sensed his purpose and knew how special Jesus was.

St. John the Forerunner is almost always dressed in a green robe. This is often a symbol of nature or earthliness, and is seen on ascetic saints who spent much of their life in the wilderness. In his icon, his hair is often long and disheveled, and the tunic under his green robe looks wavy like animal hair. All of this is to depict his life in the desert, foregoing the typical comforts of life for bugs and camel hair.

Another interesting thing in this icon is that St. John has wings. That bothered me at first. I felt that it was inappropriate to equate a human to an angel. Angels, obviously are higher and holier than human beings! However, Orthodoxy does not necessarily subscribe to that opinion. Mary is believed to be “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,” because she was part of the Incarnation, while the angels weren’t. St. John is depicted with wings because he was a messenger of God. The word angel means “messenger,” and each time angels are mentioned in the Bible, they are used to bring humans a message from God. Since St. John was a messenger or prophet sent to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival, he is considered angel-like because he brought an important message from God to earth. In addition, many ascetic saints are called angels because of their commitment to holy lives that avoid many worldly “pleasures” such as marriage, family life, shelter, abundant food, and comfort in general. St. John the Forerunner is often called “Angel of the Desert.”

Once I saw a man at the side of the road asking for money. I could tell he was poor because his socks were filthy and his shoes were falling apart. He had a bushy beard, and his hair was unkempt. He walked with a limp, and his eyes were squinted against the hot afternoon sun. When he got close to my car, I noticed he was wearing a black shirt with a huge white angel on the front. I couldn’t help but think of St. John the Baptist. Was this homeless, weary man a messenger from God? That day I did not have any cash with me to give him, so when the light turned green, I drove on, leaving the angel-man in the dust.

That experience got me thinking about what a modern St. John would be like. Living on the streets. Sleeping in the shelter of a cardboard box. Hair matted and dirty. Ripped jeans, long-sleeved faded green thermal shirt. I can see him standing on the street corner in a big city, calling out the money-launderers and big monopolies. Or maybe he lives in the woods, foraging along with the animals and sleeping in the leaves. Maybe he waits next to a cold running creek for hikers and nature lovers. Maybe they see his bearded face and talk with him for a few minutes. Maybe they let him pour the stinging water over their hands. Maybe they see his thinness and give him a couple of granola bars. I don’t know. I suppose a 21st century St. John could just as easily be a controversial blogger calling people to repent.

Sometimes I find myself searching for a prophet, someone to show me the way. I feel like we’ve lost faith in signs and signals, visions and dreams. We’re left with very little to guide us, other than what our culture offers: social media, product marketing, and celebrity.

Sometimes, I want to be the one who shrinks away to the wilderness, away from the noise and the technology, where the path to God might be easier to find.

Image used by permission from Jim Forest.

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Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer, poet, and educator. She has been Orthodox for almost ten years and her patron saint is St. Nonna, the mother of Gregory of Nazianzus. Read more of Karissa’s work at her blog, or find her on Twitter.

Saint John and the Birth of a Baby


An icon of St John Maximovitch by the hand of Tom Denich
An icon of St John Maximovitch by the hand of Tom Denich

In honor of the 20th anniversary of the canonization of St. John the Wonderworker and his feast day today I would like to relate a previously unpublished story of one of St. John’s miracles.

The year was 1988 and my mother went into labor. Her labor went well and was not painful, so she was able to concentrate and pray. We attended the church of Blessed John the Wonderworker in Atlanta GA – dedicated to him prior to his canonization – so my mother prayed to Blessed John to bless the birth. She later said that she could only describe her labor as “sweet.”

Close to 1am she began to push. The baby’s head came out and then everything stopped.

The midwife noted that the baby’s face was pale and after checking discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped too tightly around her neck. She clipped and cut the cord and my sister was born. She had no breath or heartbeat. The midwife yelled, “Someone breathe for that baby.” My father proceeded to give her mouth to mouth and somebody started CPR. This went on for ten minutes and during this time the heart began to beat, but she still had no breath. My father shouted, “give me Blessed John’s oil!” Someone threw it to him and he dumped it on my sister’s head. She took her first breath.

She was rushed to the hospital for evaluation. The doctors warned my parents that after being deprived of oxygen for such a length of time, that the odds were there would be some sort of brain damage. To the doctors’ amazement, she was perfectly healthy.

I grew up hearing this story shared with family and friends, especially at our local parish. In gratitude to St. John we are now sharing it with the world.

Wonderous is God in His Saints!

items-to-bless*Even before his glorification a vigil lamp was kept above St. John’s relics. Oil from this lamp was and still is used to anoint the faithful. Many wonders have been attributed to St. John through use of his oil. For more information on how to obtain St. John’s oil go to

The Sacrifice of Fr. Nicola Yanney

yanney 2I have always felt that only God truly knows who the saints are until He chooses to reveal them to us, but how does this happen? One way that this happens is through local veneration, which attracts the attention of the regional church. It is my hope that Fr. Nicola Yanney of Nebraska will soon be glorified in this manner.

I have a very close relationship with Fr. Nicola. I first heard about him after my godfather had returned from a visit to Fr. Nicola’s church in Kearney, Nebraska. I can still recall the great joy in my heart upon venerating the Gospel that his own parishioners had given to him as a gift. The love that the church had for him and their history is amazing.

Born in Ottoman Syria, Fr. Nicola immigrated to America at age 19. He eventually settled in a tiny rural town outside of Kearney with his family. Here, the family remained for some years, until the tragic death of Fr. Nicola’s wife during childbirth. After mourning for a long time, Fr. Nicola was encouraged by the then Archimandrite Raphael and the few, but strong faithful in the  Kearney area – who had just established a church, St. George the Great Martyr – to travel to New York to study for ordination. In 1904 Raphael was elevated to bishop and that Palm Sunday, Fr. Nicola became the first to have Bp. Raphael’s hands laid upon his head. Upon his return to Nebraska, he moved his family to Kearney to be in the heart of his flock.

raphael and yanneyBishop Basil of Wichita describes the duties given to Fr. Nicola: “Shortly after his consecration to the sacred episcopacy a century ago – – on March 13th, 1904 — St. Raphael of Brooklyn performed his first priestly ordination, the ordained being a young widower, Nicola Yanney, a native of the tiny village of Fi’eh in north Lebanon, living with his children on a farm in Gibbon, Nebraska. Father Nicola was ordained [on April 3rd, 1904] for what was then the westernmost parish of St. Raphael’s Diocese, St. George’s Church in Kearney, Nebraska, but he was given pastoral responsibility for an area that is nearly identical to the boundaries of our newly created Diocese of Mid-America. Father Nicola’s parish stretched from the Canadian border in the north, to the Mexican border in the south, and from the Mississippi River in the east, to the Rocky Mountains in the west. It is Fr. Nicola who, as a circuit riding priest headquartered in Kearney, followed the example of his Father-in-Christ, St. Raphael, and visited Orthodox Christians in the scattered towns, villages and isolated farm lands throughout America’s Heartland.”

In 1918 the Spanish Flu had come to Kearney. The city was lucky, as not many people suffered. But a second wave of the disease struck harder and the city ordered a quarantine. Since the faithful could not come to church, Fr. Nicola took the Church to them, one by one, house by house, so that they could receive the Body and Blood of Christ. And it was in this way that Fr. Nicola would come to meet Our Lord on October 29, 1918, after catching the Spanish Flu himself a week earlier.

There is something that draws me near to Fr. Yanney: perhaps it is my close proximity to his church, or the beauty in his faith. Maybe even it is his passion for Christ, so strong was it, that he was worried more about the souls of those in his Church than for his own health. Nonetheless, I have never been able to explain this. And perhaps that is the point. My godfather likes to tell me that perhaps it is Fr. Nicola inspiring me. Whatever it truly is, by God’s grace, I can only pray that the Church proper recognizes the impact that he has had on us, the faithful and that he is indeed a Passion-Bearer.

Holy Fr. Yanney pray to God for us.

If you would like to learn more about Fr. Nicola, please visit:

Living with Childhood Apraxia of Speech

photo (3)Glory to God for all things!
As some of you may remember, my son has Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), a neurological disorder that affects his ability to speak. Essentially, the brain has trouble coordinating with the muscles in his mouth to form sounds, much less words. I wrote a little about this back in May (

). It was very much rushed and at the time hard for me to write. So this update will be more thought out, less emotional.

We had some inclinations that S. had speech problems when he was two. He made very few sounds; just stuck to the ones he knew: Mama, bye, hi. Those may have been his only words. He grunted a lot, more than a toddler should, I imagine. My wife and I constantly felt like we were failing him; was there something we were doing wrong? Everybody kept telling us that he would come around, that sometimes it just took longer, that their sons didn’t start talking until they were three years old. We even had a Melkite family tell us a story about a young boy who was around at least three different languages in the house, and that he didn’t start talking until he was four. Granted, when he did start talking, it was in full sentences, in the languages to the people who spoke that language. We only speak English in my household, so I knew that was not to be the case. Everybody had great intentions, and really, what do you say to somebody in this situation? God bless them all!

Anyways, my wife started researching S’s speech problems on the internet and eventually came across CAS. Pretty much, a light bulb went off. ‘This is what S has!’ we said to each other. It would take us a while to get S tested through the local school system, and even then, with such limited vocal skills, no formal diagnosis could be given. Rather we were told he had Suspected CAS. Either way, I felt relief, in a sense. At least it wasn’t something we were doing or weren’t doing. With this in hand, we told our families, close friends, and our priest.

Our priest is a wonderful man. He called me soon after he got my email to him and said he wanted to come over to the house and pray for S. A couple of days had gone by before Father came over, and we were given time to acclimate to our situation. When Father did arrive, he said a small healing service for S. and anointed him with oil. Afterwards, Father surprised me; he started asking all sorts of questions. Apparently, he had taken the time to read five articles online that he had found about CAS. Like I said, a wonderful man.

We found a speech therapist that we were seeing for a while and are now currently seeing a wonderful therapist at the local Rite Care Clinic. At times, my wife was taking him to therapy four times a week. S. has gone from being able to say three words at the beginning of the year to saying full sentences and even his name!

If you have taken the time to read the linked post I wrote in May, then you know about my feelings towards St. John Maximovitch and his not wanting to be a bishop due to his own speech impediment. He also is of great importance to my priest and our whole parish. I even informed my wife that I decided Archbishop John is the patron saint for our family. I have been blessed to have been given a small relic of his, and of course I have holy oil from his reliquary. I have also come into possession of a rather beautiful icon of him, painted by hand by a lady from my church. All of these Holy items have a special place in my heart, yes, because they are holy, but also because I have been blessed to have them from the love others.

Now, this has been no cake walk, that is for sure. I am not the most patient man, and I am tested every day because of the CAS. There are still times, almost every day, that I have no idea what S. is saying to me. He can go on and on, but the pronunciation is not there, the words are not there, my patience is not there. Will my son ever be able to talk “normally?” I can honestly say that I do not know. I know from networking CAS groups, that he is not affected to the extent that some children are. Maybe when he is 18, there will be no sign left that he is afflicted with this disorder, but again, I do not know. But, I believe whole heartedly, that without the intercession of Archbishop John, and the prayers offered by my priest, family and friends, along with extensive therapy, S. would still not know how to say his name, or be able to tell my wife and me a story. Or even the best thing of all to ever come out of his mouth, ‘I love you.’

It is the small things like this that have helped me to pray, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’ I am sure that this is a common feeling shared by parents of children with disabilities, or illnesses. And as much sadness and tears I experience because of CAS, I can honestly say, that even though I hate it, almost all the time, that I would not ask for it to “just go away.” This is a burden that my family must carry, but it is burden I feel brings us closer to God, and that through Him, ‘I can do all things.’

St. Herman of Alaska, the Quiet Unassuming Monk

564605_681391328567589_1405001796_nWhen I think of St. Herman I am reminded of the winter I spent on Spruce Island as a teen. I stayed some of the time in the abbot’s barabara (a sod hut) as his cell attendant. It was cozy and safe. Very early in the mornings, we would walk to midnight office and matins. We followed the cycle of services and did manual labor. I like to imagine, that just as St. Herman did, we stayed closely connected to the Earth.

Monk Herman was not a priest, not a vigorous travelling missionary like St. Innocent. He wrote no great works on theology or ‘spiritual life’. So, what is it about this quiet unassuming monk that impacts us? I would say his silence – his simple small life – is a model for all Christian life.

Once asked how he coped with the boredom of solitude, he replied: “No, I’m not alone there! There is God, and God is everywhere! There are holy angels! How can one be bored with them? With whom is it more pleasant and better to converse, angels or people? Angels, of course!”

Monk Herman was also a champion of the rights of the native peoples oppressed by the Russian traders and government; constantly interceding for his fellow man, and caring for the many orphans. He is remembered locally as a great hero of the people. This simple unassuming monk was showing us in his own way, how to fulfill the commandments of the Lord.

I will end with his words: “And I, a sinner, have tried to love God for more than forty years, and I cannot say that I perfectly love Him,” but he later added, “at least let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

– שְׁמוּאֵל